Dogs of Whittier

I wake at midnight to dogs barking. Barking in the night is the sound of urban ghetto or rural poverty, evokes the boney dogs of slum backyards and country farms. In film festival shorts we saw last fall, we heard barking as the camera slowly zoomed in on small huddled homes, villages in Nepal, Pine Ridge Reservation, Mexico.

Juan Rulfo’s tough story: No oyes ladrar los perros. Don’t you hear the dogs barking. It is how we know we’ve reached town in the pitch dark of rural night.

When we came here 33 years ago, the neighborhood was patchy, with poor, neglected sections of sagging porches, windows covered in plastic, cars on blocks in the backyard. And there were dogs, in filthy pens and on chains in backyards, or wandering the alleys collarless. My first winter here the dog across the alley stretched its staked rope as far as it could reach, wore a bare circular path, had no shelter, curled into a ball covered by snow. Next door two Dobermans lived in the weedy backyard, were fed intermittently, and abandoned when their owners decamped under cover of night.

When life is a struggle to meet basic needs, people often don’t adequately care for children or themselves, let alone animals. I was a member of such a family for a decade, participated in bad decisions, self-destructive behavior. Children and animals paid a price. Thirty years ago, moving here reminded me of that. Dogs barked neurotically, venting the misery of their exile. I snuck them water and food, took strays to shelters, adopted kittens out of the alley.

My neighbor Bartleby, being walked by one of his humans, the artist Jenn

Now that gentrification is upon us, things are different. The new people walk their dogs accompanied by baby strollers and cell phones, take dogs into the house. My neighbor dogs, Gideon and Bartleby, go everywhere with their owners. Today’s dogs are far from those starved animals that sometimes ran these streets in packs.

Yet I am awakened by the sound of dogs barking. Everyone has privacy fences now, so I cannot identify the source, but some white people leave their dogs in back yards. I say white people, because except for the apartments and one family, that’s all that lives on this block today. In 1984, everyone except for us was black, Mexican and Central American.

I’ve been visiting when people’s dogs start barking outside. My hosts seem oblivious or inured to it, keep talking, check the dog when it’s convenient. Perhaps I’m associating it with my troubled past, but barking rivets my attention like the sound of a baby crying. I cannot focus on conversation until it stops. To me, barking dogs are unhappy dogs. Someone at the Dumb Friend’s League told me that pets being given up bark and meow and whine. Homeless animals are silent. “They don’t expect anything,” she said.

The backyard dogs set each other off—there are four or five of them—hear a cat prowling the top of a fence, or maybe a raccoon. We’ve got raccoons in this city neighborhood, raccoons and foxes and coyotes. The more we encroach on their habitat, the more they must encroach on ours. It takes half an hour for the dogs to subside. Sometime before one a.m. I’m able to go back to sleep.

I kept a log for a while, thinking I might call Animal Control, but never did. The non-stop barking generally lasts no more than an hour. Dogs are not being left out all night. The dog owners I know are conscientious custodians. Still, when the barking erupts as I’m going to bed, I groan, because I won’t sleep until it stops.

Summer has barely begun and I catch myself yearning for winter, when people let dogs out less and the quiet I cherish this neighborhood for reasserts itself. Between the turmoil of our first decade here and this decade’s rush of new residents, we had slowly improving tranquil years. People called the neighborhood “The Whittier.” There was always a place to park in front of the house. Days were quiet and evening events ended by 10. With a few exceptions to prove the rule, even the Section 8 apartments were calm.

Whittier is changing as all urban neighborhoods are right now, because people with resources have decided to live in the city. I’m happy to see Victorian houses restored to their former glory, can’t complain about skyrocketing home values, and have terrific neighbors. We house sit for each other, and I can still coax new arrivals into taking my overgrown day lilies and irises when I thin them. But when it comes to dogs, sometimes it seems like nothing has changed.



Posted in Memoir, Neighborhood | 5 Comments

A Reason For Poems, accompanied by cats

Thanks to Bob Jaeger and apologies to Ada Limón

I’m talking to the cats because they’re alone all day and only have a brief distraction when I come over to feed them. “So how was your day?” I ask. “You were sleeping weren’t you? You look like you were sleeping. What? Am I taking too long? But you can see that your bowls need washing. Patience, you know, is a virtue.”

Ruach appears promptly to eat but I understand I am not to touch her, nor even come near her really. Once I’ve put her food down I back away quickly or she won’t even approach the dish. I am not a real person to Roo. I am a barely tolerable fixer of food and litter box cleaner. I have no illusions. Roo’s real person will be back in three more days. She’s in Ireland, an enviable location.

Liat is another matter, greets me at the door, jumps on the table and taps me on the arm with her paw: “hey, over here. Look at me. I need petting.”

Liat on the table

I can never stay long, but try to bring something to do with me so I will linger a little to keep the cats company. Email to check, a New Yorker essay to finish reading.

Today I brought my phone because Bob sent me poems and I haven’t had time to read and respond to them. I subscribe to one poem-a-day list and Bob subscribes to another. A lot of the poems we read, shrug, delete. We’re tough critics. But when a good one comes along, we send it to each other.

Roo finishes eating, wants no more to do with me, and slinks back upstairs. “If you need me,” she seems to say, “I’ll be in the darkest corner under the bed.” Goth cat. Taking no note of Roo’s departure, Liat wishes to know why I’m not petting her.

I open one of the poems Bob sent and find it square. Ah, a sonnet. I begin reading:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out/of the crabapple tree…

Liat bumps her head against my legs, wanders back to her so recently full dish, looks at me as if to say, “see how empty it is.”

“If you are not careful, Liat, you will turn into a fat cat. Come here and I’ll read you a poem.”

Liat demurs. I ignore her and continue the poem anyway.

…more than …cherry limbs shoving/their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate/ sky…

“That’s nice, don’t you think? Those pink blossoms against a slate sky?” Liat rubs round my ankles, paces down the hall restlessly, unimpressed.

I sit. Now I am a lap. This is much better. Liat jumps up instantly. “If you’re going to walk around my lap, that’s not really—O.K. settle down. I was telling you that more, more than all those blossoms—”

it’s the greening of the trees/ that really gets to me. When all the shock of white/ and taffy…leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, /the leaves come.

“Ouch, Liat, don’t dig into my knees. My knees are sensitive. Those cherry blossoms fall exactly like confetti. Are you even listening? Where’s Roo? Where’s your buddy? O.K. here’s the next part, then.”

Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.

Liat has begun to purr, softly. “Oh, Liat, that bit about a green skin covering what winter did to us almost choked me up.” Liat massages my thigh gently, her front paws spread into furry fingers. “If it can choke you up, it’s probably a good poem.”

I spy Roo’s gray head peering from the top of the stairs. “You like the poem after all, hey Roo? Didn’t want to miss the conclusion? It’s only fourteen lines, you know.” I direct my voice toward the second floor.

Roo on the stairs

Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/ unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

“Like a fist to a palm,” I repeat for the cats, demonstrating with my own hands how my fists, clenched tight with the anger ignited by this regime, can unfold into the pacific palms up position. Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Roo continues to gaze impassively from the stairs, gray head, golden eyes. Liat settles her blue-eyed self more comfortably into my lap.

In these hard times, despite the mess, the hurt, the empty of us, it is good to read such a poem, which is after all titled “Instructions On Not Giving Up.” And better yet to read it aloud with a purring cat in one’s lap.


Ada Limón’s wonderful sonnet, in its proper format and without cat disturbances, can be found below.



Posted in Humor, Writing | 9 Comments

The Common Good

One of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself.                                                                                                                                                 Rabindranath Tagore

In the early 90s, before I went crazy and became a teacher, I worked at Denver Regional Council of Governments, which serves the eighteen or so local jurisdictions in the metro area. I staffed meetings of fire chiefs, police chiefs, inspection services and city managers. Unlike elected mayors of the big entities like Denver, city managers are professional career staff, hired by city councils. For the most part, those I knew were competent men who read the handouts before the meeting, had formulated their questions and knew what their city’s position would be on the matter. Utilities, roads—all manner of services cross city limits, from Littleton to Englewood, from Thornton to Westminster. Inter-jurisdictional cooperation happens daily on the local level.

Englewood Civic Center, a Denver metro area jurisdiction

While I was staffing this group, a manager of one of the larger suburban cities resigned to take an executive position with a private company. The following year we asked him to speak to his former colleagues about the differences in private and public sector administration. His presentation made an impression on me. I am paraphrasing, but this is the substance of what he said.

“When you work for citizens, with taxpayer money, you are subject to restraints,” he told them. “Everything you do is in the public eye, apt to be reported in the local newspaper and you are always answerable to your city council. I know many of you work more than 40 hours most weeks. Bob, when your town had that flooding last spring, you were out there 15 hours a day for ten days straight.”

The audience beamed approval in Bob’s (not his real name) direction. He flushed over the unexpected recognition and gave a shrug that said, “you do what you got to do.”

“You work a full day and come back for council meetings at night. I did the same. And when you travel on city business you fly coach and stay at hotels in an approved price range, am I right?”

City mangers in their grey suits and ties nodded agreement around the room.

“I can tell you this about the private sector: I worked a lot harder as a city manager. I now have a virtually unlimited expense account. I fly first class, stay at the best hotels, take people to lunch and buy drinks—as a city manager I could never buy someone a drink.”

Heads were nodding vigorously now and a responsoral murmuring had begun. That gathering of white middle-aged men seemed on the verge of shouting “amen!”

“Because,” our guest continued, “the private sector doesn’t answer to taxpayers, isn’t in the public eye. You can do much you’d never dream of doing in government. Few are watching.”

Our speaker tactfully didn’t add what we all knew: that his private sector salary was considerably above what he’d earned as a city manager.

I don’t remember the speaker’s name or any other particulars from that day—it was nearly 30 years ago—but the memory of his speech has returned to me often since 45 came into office. Besides 45’s other failings, I think a major obstacle to his being successful as president is the fact that he’s a businessman. The very thing his supporters named as the reason to vote for him, I thought was a reason not to do so.

He didn’t know he had to hire a whole new White House staff. He thought the staff came with the position, like a private sector takeover. He didn’t realize his life was no longer private and we millions of taxpayers would be counting his trips to Mar-a-Lago, monitoring his every tweet. He didn’t know a president couldn’t necessarily pressure other branches of government into doing his bidding; that other readings of the law might prevail. If he wanted to fire the FBI director, he didn’t know he ought to look at historical precedents for or against such a move and likely repercussions before deciding.

In the private sector, he never had to consider any of those things. In your own business, you go to Mar-a-Lago whenever you want and nobody cares. 45 had never worn public sector shoes, couldn’t imagine what the government world was like. Tagore, quoted above from his 1917 Personality: Lectures Delivered in America, thought the ability to imagine such a thing was what “motivates us to act for the common good.”

It was clear that day with the city managers that acting for the common good was on their side of the room. And working for the common good is what keeps a democracy alive.




Posted in Memoir, Politics | 4 Comments

Writerly Routines

Oak tree in winter

I’m staring into the fridge. It’s like staring into the paucity of life. There are three eggs, the makings of a green salad, half a broiled chicken thigh, and a slice of roast beef Phil brought home from a dinner out. I regard the last with hostility, do not believe beef should be in the same fridge with food. I pinch the foil to be sure its beefness is not contaminating everything else.

It’s Thursday and I’m now four days from my blog deadline with not a clue what it will be. This thing with the blog deadline is serious. I stake my writerhood on it. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: four days of researching book markets, grading student papers, eating leftovers for lunch, cooking dinner. I already looked at all the bright blog ideas I have on file: they stink.

There’s also enough fajitas left for maybe one taco. The fridge beeps at me. I’m holding the door open too long. I tell it to shut up. Assorted condiments. And a small bottle half full of sour milk. I wrinkle my nose and dump it down the sink.

I have an idea, close the fridge and approach my husband warily. “There’s nothing to eat for lunch.”

Phil looks up from his coffee break reading, a story about George Herriman. I’m not sure yet if the look is “hell-no-I-got-work-to-do,” or “tell me more.”

“Yes? And did you have something in mind?” His face is still noncommittal.

I propose lunch out, stipulating that it should be quick, we’d come home and get right back to work, because we have to go to the gym at 3 and an art opening at 7.

Phil sighs. “A shame about the gym. If it weren’t for that, we could go to lunch and then see The Lost City of Z.” He pauses, contemplating the sadness of it all. “I know,” he shrugs, “there’s some theory that going to the gym will lengthen our lives…”

“But by how much?” I pounce, liking where this might be going. “And we did promise to see The Lost City of Z this week, didn’t we? We talked about it on Sunday.”

On Sunday, you see, the entire new week spread virginally before us, untouched by aborted ideas, unsullied by a sudden power outage causing us to lose whatever we were working on, unlimited by an enjoyable, but time-eating birthday celebration with my sweet daughter. On Sunday the week ahead was an empty plain waiting to be peopled with brilliant accomplishments. On Sunday, we looked over that vast space and said, “Sure. We can do that. Let’s go see a movie.”

Here’s the thing about having your own work—I don’t like to say “being self-employed,” because that implies we earn money. Having your own work means the days run away like wild horses over the hills. Bukowski said that. You talk to those who still have jobs, and they tell you about the three movies they saw in the last two weeks, and you ask, how the hell do they do that? Because here it is Thursday—Thursday!—and we haven’t done half what we proposed in our eternally optimistic day minders.

Nonetheless, Warren-like, we persist. We did promise ourselves a movie. Our show’s at 4, so we revise our plans. Movie, dinner, the art opening. No time for the gym. How much sooner does that mean we’ll die? If it’s five minutes, I’m O.K. with that.

One speck of spoiling guilt in this emerging indulgence plan. I confess that I haven’t a clue about the next blog. Phil knows this thing about the blog deadline is serious. “Output, output, output, that’s all you’ve been doing,” he exclaims. “You need to take things in.”

This, I reflect, is exactly the problem with standardized testing, but that’s another story. “Good advice,” I decide. “Let’s do it.” I feel daring and young for about thirty seconds.

Then I’m faced with having to figure out lunch from the available options after all.


Postscript: The opening, which included our friends Sylvia Montero and Tony Ortega, was at the Art Gym, a huge former grocery store supplied with Adobe Suite large screen computers for photographers and designers, a full range of printing presses and a coffee shop. It’s shared, not co-op. For $100/month you get to pull your prints or whatever. Writers join too, bring their laptops. “The writers,” a member tells me, “are the most disciplined, come at 9, go to lunch, come back and work till 4 or 5.” It was news to me. I am a writer, but I’m not familiar with that behavior.


Posted in Humor, Writing | 5 Comments